A sermon delivered by David Stratton, pastor, Brunswick Islands Baptist Church, Holden Beach, N.C., on July 4, 2010.
“Church and state should be separate.” That six-word sentence is found in all three versions of the Baptist Faith and Message which is the confession of faith of many Baptist churches. The original version of this statement of Christian teaching was approved by the Southern Baptist Convention in 1925. It was revised in 1963 and again in 2000. In our bylaws here we affirm the 1963 version of the Baptist Faith and Message as our confession of faith. But, again, for 85 years now, any edition of the Baptist Faith and message that you want to point to includes this six-word sentence: “Church and state should be separate.”
It’s Independence Day, a day on which we celebrate the birthday of this nation and honor the freedom that is ours. Since we are gathered here in a place of worship on this Independence Day, I think it is appropriate that we ponder for a moment a freedom that is near and dear to our hearts: religious freedom. Religious liberty is essential if this is to be a truly free country.
One-hundred and thirty years before the event that we celebrate today, a group of Baptists wrote that, without religious liberty “all other liberties will not be worth the naming, much less enjoying.” I would agree with that assessment. Can Christianity spread and flourish in cultures where religious freedom does not exist? Yes, it can and it has done so and does so even now. But in this nation we claim to be free. And a nation cannot be truly free if it does not support and defend religious freedom. Religious liberty is essential to a free country. Without true religious freedom a nation is not truly free.
So it is essential that we support and defend religious liberty. Religious freedom must be protected if we are to be free at all. How do we safeguard religious liberty? We protect religious freedom through the Bible-based concept of the separation of church and state.
I bring this up because it is Independence Day and, in church, I can’t think of a better topic to explore today than the defense of the essential freedom that is religious liberty. I also bring it up because the separation of church and state is under assault today. It is under assault by many of the very people who should be the most ardent defenders of the concept.
Many evangelical Christians, including many Baptists, today say that the separation of church and state is a bad idea. They say that the separation of church and state is a myth not found in the Constitution. They say it is a liberal concept that should be cast aside.
And they are wrong. The separation of church and state is in the Constitution of this nation as we will see. But, more importantly, the separation of church and state is a Bible-based concept. And, in the end, whether or not church-state separation is in the Constitution, the concept deserves the support of the followers of Christ because of its biblical roots. Again, it is my contention that church-state separation is in the Constitution of this nation. But whether or not that is the case, the concept can be anchored to biblical teaching and the Bible is the ultimate authoritative document for Christians, not the Constitution.
I intend to do accomplish two goals in the next few minutes: (1) I am going to make a biblical case for the separation of church and state, and (2) I am going to make the case that church-state separation is in the Constitution of this nation. In my mind the former matters far more than the latter. I am far more interested in the biblical case than the constitutional case. But, because of much of the rhetoric surrounding this issue that is spewed by many evangelical leaders, I will make both cases briefly.
First of all, let’s consider some biblical arguments in favor of the separation of church and state. Last fall, as part of my DMin studies, I researched such arguments and I found out something. There are a bunch of biblical arguments in favor of the separation of church and state–too many for me to make an exhaustive list here. I’ve got a 30-page paper in which I list many of those arguments that you can look at if you want. But in the next few moments I am going to expose what I consider the strongest biblical argument in favor of church-state separation.
Before I get to that argument, however, I will list one other bit of biblical teaching in favor of the separation of church and state. In Matthew 22:21, Jesus said that we must render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and render unto God the things that are God’s. As Baptist historian Jim Spivey points out, this teaching “identifies Christians as citizens of two distinct kingdoms who fulfill separate obligations in each one.” The language of Baptist hero George W. Truett is far stronger. In an address delivered in 1920 from the steps of the Capitol before an audience of 15,000 people, Truett said this saying of Jesus “once for all … marked the divorcement of church and state.” According to George Thomas this pronouncement of Jesus “justifies … the insistence … upon the independence of the Church in relation to the State.”
Now that’s a strong biblical argument in favor of church state separation. A very strong argument. But, believe it or not, there is another argument that I consider even stronger. It has to do with the manner in which Christ expressed his lordship here on earth.
In the opening verses of Mat. 4 we find one of the gospel accounts of Satan tempting Jesus. Listen to the climactic temptation in Matthew’s account:
The devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” (Mat. 4:8-9, TNIV)
Let me stop there for a moment because you need to understand something. Satan was not so much tempting Jesus to literal devil worship. I mean, come on, what are the odds of the Son of God literally bowing down in worship of Satan? The devil was not so dumb as to try to convince Jesus to do that. As John Nolland wrote, “Satan’s role in this situation does not relate directly to Satan worship … It is likely … that the worship of Satan to which Jesus is enticed is the temptation to pursue his task in the ways of the world …”
The wording of the text indicates that it is not so much that Satan told Jesus, “Worship me, and all the power of these governments can be yours.” No, Satan was saying that if Jesus used the power of the kingdoms to achieve his ends it amounted to a worship of the devil.
But notice here that Satan offered Jesus the power of all the kingdoms–the governments–of the world. Think of all the good Jesus could have done if he were running all the governments in the world. Sounds like a good idea, doesn’t it? Jesus may not be a member of your favorite political party but I’m thinking he could do a considerably better job of running things in government than any of them.
So, how did Jesus respond to this seemingly good idea? “Away from me, Satan!” (v. 10, TNIV). Jesus was offered the power of government for use in accomplishing his mission and he rejected it as a temptation from the devil. Our Lord did not use the power of the government to get the job done. He remained separate from the government in accomplishing his mission.
This is a consistent feature of our Lord’s work on earth. In John 6, when the people tried to make him king, Jesus hid (John 6:14-15). Indeed, Jesus did not die with the sword of government in his hand but with the spear of government in his side.
The offer to wield governmental power in the completion of his mission was a temptation of the devil as far as Jesus was concerned and he wanted no part of it. And one of the greatest tragedies of our culture is that many followers of Christ are doing their best to give in to this temptation that Jesus resisted. But the main point here is this strong biblical evidence in favor of the separation of church and state. Jesus, our Lord and our example, rejected, as a temptation of the devil, the offer to use the power of government in the completion of his mission.
You might ask, “What about the argument from the other side? What about those who make a biblical case against the separation of church and state?”
It is funny that you should ask about that. Last fall, as part of my DMin studies, I made and extensive search for biblical arguments from current evangelicals against the separation of church and state or arguments for uniting church and state. And do you know what? I couldn’t find any. And I wanted to find some. I kind of need such arguments as a part of my studies. I’m not saying that no one out there makes Bible-based arguments against the separation of church and state. But if those arguments exist I have not found them and I’ve looked hard.
I read a lot of books and articles written by evangelicals who oppose church-state separation. Typically what they do is to bemoan the decline of morals in this nation and they say that we need to turn this nation back to God in part by doing away with the separation of church and state. But, as far as pointing out where the Bible says that the separation of church and state is wrong, I haven’t found those arguments. As far as showing where the New Testament teaches that Christians should be in charge of government, I haven’t found those arguments. Evangelicals who oppose church-state separation typically turn more to some statements of certain founders of this nation than they turn to biblical arguments.
I have found many biblical defenses of church-state separation–too many to go through in one sermon. But I have not found one specific, Bible-based case by a modern-day evangelical saying that church and state should be united. Not one. So I can’t tell you about the arguments on the other side because I can’t find them and I’ve looked.
But there are biblical arguments in favor of church-state separation and I have listed a couple of the stronger arguments in this regard. Again, Jesus rejected as a temptation of the devil the offer to use the power of government to accomplish his mission. He refused to operate that way and that is his example to his followers. I really don’t see how Christians who oppose church-state separation can even plow around that stump. This appears to be a rock-solid biblical case in favor of the separation of church and state.
But what about the Constitution? Is church-state separation in the Constitution of the United States? Many today say that it is not. They say that you will not find the phrase “separation of church and state” in the Constitution. I need to confess to you that it really ticks me off when I hear that argument.
That exact phrase, “separation of church and state,” was not a commonly used saying in this country when the Constitution and Bill of Rights were formulated. This fact is undeniable. I doubt that anyone has read more on the formulation of the Constitution with regard to religious liberty than Baptist historian H. Leon McBeth and he says that, during the period in which the Constitution and Bill of Rights was written, “the term separation of church and state was not yet in common usage.” As we will see, the concept of church-state separation is in the Constitution but the exact phrase is not because that exact saying was not popular when the Constitution was written.
So, anyone today who makes an argument that the separation of church and state is not in the Constitution because that exact phrase is not in the Constitution is being deceptive. In most cases I doubt they are being intentionally deceptive, but they are nonetheless being deceptive. They are forcing a language requirement on a period in which such language was not commonly used.
Let me give you an example of the error in this approach. Jehovah’s Witnesses do not believe in the Trinity. One of the big arguments that they use against the Trinity is that the word “Trinity” is not found in the Bible. And, guess what? The word “Trinity” is not in the Bible. But, you see, the term “Trinity” is a tag that Christians developed hundreds of years after the Bible was written as shorthand for a concept that is very clearly taught by the scriptures.
The concept of the Trinity is in the Bible even though the exact word is not. And to argue against the Trinity based on the lack of a word in the Bible that did not exist when the Bible was written is deceptive. And that’s exactly what opponents of church-state separation do when they say the separation of church and state is a myth because that exact language is not in the Constitution. Of course that exact language is not in the Constitution. That shorthand for the concept became popular years after the Constitution was written. So this argument that the separation of church and state is not in the Constitution because that exact language is not in the Constitution is has got a gigantic hole in it. That bucket won’t hold water.
A couple of months ago the matter of new textbook requirements for public schools in Texas was all over the news. One of the controversial new requirements for the textbooks is that school children in Texas will be taught that the words “separation of church and state” are not in the Constitution. That’s true, but it is deceptive for the reason that I have just stated. And it is a dirty rotten shame that this requirement was approved because the truth is the concept of church state separation is in the Constitution.
Now, I should point out that not all of the founding fathers of this country favored the separation of church and state. This was not a unanimous decision among the founders. Today’s opponents of church-state separation point to quotes from some founders that are against or at least undermine separation, and those anti-separation quotes are indeed out there. Some founders did not like the idea of the separation of church and state.
But, here’s the thing: Those like James Madison and Thomas Jefferson who favored the separation of church and state won the day. By the way, among their strongest supporters for religious liberty expressed through the separation of church and state were Baptists. But that is another story that I have told before as recently as this past Wednesday. You will hear that story again, but not today.
The First Amendment includes this line: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …” There has been a lot of debate about what exactly those phrases are supposed to mean. But there can be no doubt that the body that originally adopted that language interpreted it to include the concept of what is now commonly referred to as the separation of church and state. As evidence of this, I want to point out a historical fact that I was not acquainted with until I was doing my DMin work. I found it in an article written nearly 60 years ago by Irving Brant, a historian who wrote a 6-volume biography of James Madison.
One year after Congress approved the Bill of Rights, Madison explained why he did not include a particular feature in the census bill. He did not include a question on the census about the professions of the citizens of this nation. Do you know why he did not want to ask people what they do for a living on the census? The census would be sent to everyone, including ministers. And Madison said that the government could not ask ministers about their profession because, in the First Amendment, “the general government is proscribed from interfering, in any manner whatever, in matters respecting religion; and it may be thought to do this, in ascertaining who [are] and who are not ministers of the gospel.”
Hear that, now. Madison, addressing the same body that had just adopted the Bill of Rights, said that the federal government was barred from asking people what they do for a living because the government might be asking a minister and it could do that because the First Amendment said that the government cannot touch religion in any way. As Brant said this represented “the broadest conceivable definition of the constitutional guarantee, made publicly … to the same group of men who had approved it … [and] [n]obody challenged his statement.”
You see, the very same body that adopted the Bill of Rights took an even stricter separationist approach than many would require today. It is clear that the group of founders who actually approved the First Amendment interpreted it to include a strict understanding of the separation of church and state. There is other evidence that I could cite indicating that the concept of church-state separation is in the Constitution, but the historical fact that I have just listed is very strong evidence and it is sufficient for today.
So, are the exact words, “separation of church and state” in the Constitution? No. Is the concept of church-state separation in the Constitution? Absolutely. There is no doubt that the founders who approved the language of the First Amendment believed it to convey what we commonly describe as the separation of church and state.
The separation of church and state is so in the Constitution. More importantly it can be seen as a Bible-based concept. And, in this nation, church-state separation has long been the effective means by which we safeguard an essential freedom, namely, religious liberty.
So, on this Independence Day let us resolve to be defenders of the separation of church and state as a Bible-based protection of the essential freedom that is religious liberty. Because without religious freedom we cannot call the United States a free country.